Fifty-Three Years Ago, Minuteman I Disaster Averted

Ellsworth AFB, S.D., averted a disaster in 1964 when a missileer named Bob Hicks climbed down the shaft of the missile silo to disarm a missile and recover the warhead. Here is a National Park Service's map of Ellsworth's former missile squadrons. The base no longer houses ICBMS.

On Dec. 5, 1964, Bob Hicks found himself climbing down the shaft of a Minuteman I missile silo in a remote part of South Dakota, working to disarm the missile and recover the warhead.

A missile maintainer at Ellsworth AFB, S.D., at the time, Hicks received a late-night phone call from his crew chief, who told him there had been an accident at one of the ICBM missile silos, and that “the warhead is no longer on top of the missile,” according to the Rapid City Journal, which cited recently released documents.

Two other airmen had been performing routine maintenance on a missile when their improper use of a screwdriver to extract a fuse had triggered an explosion in one of the missile’s retrorockets. That explosion damaged the missile’s cone, which contains the nuclear warhead, and it fell to the silo floor. Fortunately, the two maintainers were uninjured, but Hicks was called in to help salvage the damaged missile.

Working inside a metal cage lowered into the silo on cables attached to the walls, Hicks used a metal rod to sever the electrical connections between the missile’s different stages, which rendered it incapable of firing. He then suggested a cargo net for recovering the cone and lifting it out of the silo.

Several days later, after rehearsing the procedure in another silo, Hicks’ cargo net method was successful. It took two hours to raise the cone out of the silo, after which it was placed on mattresses in a trailer truck and transported to Lackland AFB, San Antonio, for disassembly.

An Air Force report said the cost of the accident was about $1.85 million in 2017 dollars and was caused by “personnel error.”

In March of 1965, the base newspaper quietly named Hicks as the “maintenance man of the month for his division,” without reference to the accident. Soon after, he received an Air Force Commendation Medal for his courageous actions.

Hicks continued in the Air Force, deploying to Guam during the Vietnam war as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist, and retiring in the 1980s.

Today, the Air Force houses its ICBMs at Minot AFB, N.D.; Malmstrom AFB, Mont.; and F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. The last Minuteman II was withdrawn from its silo at Ellsworth in 1994 and the US Army Corps of Engineers completed deactivation work on the 44th Missile Wing in 1999.